B2B marketers know why to use storytelling; let’s talk about when and how
B2B copywriter David McGuire thinks the case for storytelling is well understood; the trick is doing it well.
Right from opening keynote, when Tas Tasgal told the audience “Numbers numb us, but stories stir us”, it felt like there was only one subject people at Ignite London wanted to talk about.
Storytelling is big news in B2B. Especially now, when brands are desperate for marketing content to win the attention of distracted prospects and make a connection with people who feel unsettled. It’s always a key topic in my copywriting training sessions, and B2B Marketing even has a dedicated storytelling course for those who really want to get into the structure and substance.
Across the three days of Ignite, speaker after speaker referenced the power of story in driving business outcomes – and responses from delegates in the event chat and networking rooms made it clear that marketers as a whole no longer need convincing.
My guess is you probably already know that story is a powerful tool. Instead, perhaps you’d like some suggestions about when you might reach for it, and how you can use it well. (And strangely, a lot of them come back to the numbers…)
Three B2B uses for story: Illustrate, differentiate, precipitate
Your business does not have one story; it has thousands. And each one lends itself to a different job. To get you started, here are three moments when a touch of narrative flair can change a marketing outcome.
Use 1: Show what your data means
Data is great, of course. It can help you demonstrate points of difference, or spot patterns and react. It can help you prove that your story is true.
But all data started in the real world: measurements from real-world objects, real people, and real things that happened. And to make the data meaningful, you need to translate it back into real-world implications – tell the story of what the numbers show.
As Dr Christine Bailey of Valitor said in her Ignite talk: “We need to use data and insights to tell the story.” Data grounds the story in reality, but the story gives the data meaning.
Dr Christine Bailey, Valitor
“Use data and insights to tell the story.”
Think of a B2B case study. If the copy doesn’t have specific factual details, it lacks impact and credibility. But the part that really makes it powerful is where you show your customer overcoming a challenge – because the reader is likely facing the same thing too.
Use 2: Put a tiger among the trees
If you’re working in a sector where a lot of content looks the same (and frankly, in B2B, who isn’t) you can use a story-led approach to make yours a little different.
That gives you a disproportionate advantage, because it plays to the way nature has wired your reader. In his Ignite session on content personalisation, Turtl’s Nick Mason pointed out that we’re all constantly bombarded by more information than we can ever take in – so evolution has honed our ability to spot one tiger among a mass of jungle.
Instinctively, you ignore what’s the same, and see the thing that’s different – and you remember it, too. (If you don’t happen to have a jungle handy, try scrolling down your LinkedIn feed, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Use 3: Create a story for your customer to tell
Sometimes the most profitable stories aren’t the ones you tell about yourself – they’re the ones others tell about you.
For example, in his keynote, Jay Baer told us: “Give your customers a story to tell.”
He was talking about building a strategy to drive referral business as part of our marketing (which is an especially valuable insight for B2B, by the way; how many of us say word of mouth is powerful, then act as if it’s out of our hands?). Specifically, creating a trigger that prompts your customer to talk about you.
Jay Baer, Author
“Give your customers a story to tell.”
But to do that, you have to think about the story they’ll tell about you – what will that conversation look like? How easy and succinct is the story for them to tell? How interesting or surprising is it? Effectively, you’re storytelling by proxy.
Three B2B storytelling tips: evidence, structure, focus
But finding use cases for storytelling is only half the job, at best. Because we have to tell those stories in a way that translates into tangible business results. Happily, there was plenty of inspiration for this at Ignite, too.
Tip 1: Don’t bring emotions to a data fight
Well, not just emotions.
Story has a powerful way of driving action among prospects, customers, and stakeholders. But don’t throw out the data just yet. It’s not enough to stir emotions in isolation; we need to ground the story in reality – to satisfy both System 1 and System 2 decision-making.
A lot of the time, that starts within your own organisation. It’s no mystery why on one hand Ignite was full of B2B marketers talking about storytelling approaches, but there are so few examples in the market. Stakeholder interference and lack of co-operation are among the biggest obstacles to good B2B content.
We have a lot of work to do to convince people that, as Paul Cash charmingly put it in his session, "Story isn't wanky marketing fluff; it's an essential business tool."
It’s no coincidence that Paul’s presentation – and several others during the day – included concrete results from campaigns with storytelling approaches. A compelling story can absolutely help to unify your organisation behind a campaign, and get sales and marketing singing the same tune. But first, they to show them it’ll work.
Paul Cash, Rooster Punk
“Story isn’t wanky marketing fluff; it’s an essential business tool.”
Tip 2: Use story structure as a prompt for data points
A story isn’t just an account of a thing that happened. It needs a clear structure, and a narrative arc with a familiar shape that the reader instinctively knows how to follow (again, we cover this in B2B Marketing’s copywriting and storytelling training courses, but there’s a short version in this blog post).
And in B2B, you can use that arc as a prompt to help you lace your story with all the supporting evidence you need to build a compelling business case – without boring your audience.
As Dr Christine Bailey said: "Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And smart marketers are going to blend data in at every stage to tell more powerful stories."
When Christine creates her marketing stories, she already knows six key plot points she’s going to hit along the way: situation, complication, implication, position, action, and benefit. And she grounds each one in data, so the story always feels real and relevant in a business context.
Tip 3: It’s not about you
The most common mistake I hear when it comes to B2B storytelling is the idea that it has to be your brand’s own story – perhaps your origin story, or an illustration of your “why”.
But usually, your brand’s most compelling stories – and the ones that drive profitable business – aren’t really about you at all. They’re your customers’ stories.
In B2B, the part where a customer uses your product or service is where the action is. Think about it: would you rather hear an exposition of how lightsabers were invented, or see Luke battle Darth Vader? There’s a reason why The Lord of the Rings sold a lot more copies than The History of Middle Earth.
And your customer’s story isn’t just more exciting than yours; it’s also more relevant. Tomorrow’s customer likely has a lot in common with today’s customer when they first met you – similar challenges, similar frustrations, similar aspirations. That’s the journey you’d like to take them on too, so don’t be so eager to tell your own story that you forget the role you can play in theirs.
B2B is full of stories. But telling them takes work.
In B2B, stories happen all the time. The service person who postponed a dinner date so they could solve the customer’s issue. The valve that’s painstakingly machined from a single block of steel because it’s 27% stronger that way. The nugget of advice that helped a manager to save their team.
And all the customers who achieved amazing things and transformed their companies and jobs because they had the wisdom or the bravery to take your product or service, and use it to the fullest.
I can’t wait to read them – hopefully, to write a few, too.
Getting to the point isn’t as easy as deciding to do it. It takes stakeholder buy-in, co-operation from other departments, and a whole lot of relevant data points. But my goodness, it’ll be worth it.